Half-dead perennials are a cheap way to fill your garden
On this top shelf are peonies, calla lilies and other perennials at 50% off, it’s a steal.
Credit: Amanda Bloom
I call it my “Sad Plant Rack” (or SPS for short), and I head straight for it at every nursery I visit. This is where nursery workers send plants that don’t look as perfect as their potted brethren. They slap them with a discount label in hopes of getting rid of them quickly to make room for a new crop.
Most places don’t advertise the presence of this rack, but SPS isn’t hard to find if you know what to look for — usually a rack of mismatched plants in a far corner of the store. Ask an employee if there is a plant drop off stand and they will usually point you in the right direction.
Discount perennials are an excellent buy
The reason why these plants are a good choice is that at least some of them will be perennials, which means it doesn’t matter if they’re already spoiled for the year. All plants are either annuals (they bloom this year, then die and don’t come back) or perennials (they come back annually, or like foxglove, every two years). I rarely buy annuals from the discount racks, but this is a great place to buy perennials, which may not look pretty now but will be back to find next year, at up to 50% off.
Take delphiniums, for example, seeds that are difficult to germinate. They produce a few long, narrow stems. If one of those stems is bent and folded over, the plant will be moved to the opponent’s rack. But there’s nothing entirely wrong with that. Cut it back, and you may get a new flower this year; Regardless, next year, it will come back in full, and then you will have a two-year-old plant that has seen a 400% increase in value. This is the best case scenario, but I have buried very sad looking clumps in the ground and glorious Echinacea or Agastache emerged the following year. I often feel that for a few dollars, it’s worth the risk to see what happens in 12 months.
The closer you get to the end of the season, the fuller your SPS shelf becomes. In October, my nursery hosts a greenhouse full of them.
How to Spot a Good Buy on the Factory Discount Shelf
The first tip for implementing SPS then is: buy perennials. This is usually indicated somewhere on the plant tag. In some cases, you won’t be able to tell the color of the plant because it’s not in flower, but the classification will give you a Google name.
Plants can come back a lot, but you want to make sure the plant is still able to absorb water. If the soil seems too dry, take it to a water fountain to see if the soil absorbs any of it. If not, the manufacturer may be DNR.
Make sure it exists some Green on the plant. Again, the plant can be quite sad, but it needs at least a patch of green to be able to come back. Look for any insects, such as thrips, or signs of disease, such as brown spots. These plants stay put, and don’t need to bring insects or diseases into your garden.
I prefer plants from supermarkets because they come from a range of different places, and the staff often don’t have much gardening experience. So, I do a lot of walking around the plant itself. I would say the same thing about the grocery store, but I honestly found that the employees at the grocery stores around me were highly educated.
Also, never be afraid to ask for a deeper discount. I recently rescued five slightly distressed-looking hydrangea plants from my grocer. Even though they were already 50% off, I asked for a bigger discount in exchange for taking a few of them, and got them for $4 each. Remember, the plant people are good-hearted, and Mia just wants them to go to a good home.
How to set up your discount factories for success
The first thing you should do is give the plant a rest – it has been in the sun, without all the resources it needs, so bring it indoors and put it in the shade, and give it a good amount of water, just enough to ensure that. Water drips from the bottom of the pot. Leave it for at least twenty-four hours.
After that, it’s time to either repot or transplant it, and see what kind of condition it’s in. Sometimes, the reason it’s not flowering is because it’s root bound, which means it’s too big for the pot it’s in. Use your hands to break the roots slightly. Check them out. If they look healthy, you’re good. If it is rotten, you need to cut off the rotten part.
Give the plant a good haircut at the top so it doesn’t have to support so much greenery and can focus all its energy on growing healthy roots for next year. For example, hostas can be cut back to an inch or two. Shasta chrysanthemums can be hacked along the way. Hydrangeas can be deadheaded. Research your particular plant to see how it should be pruned, but the goal is to take some of the burden off the plant.
Place it in a hole about three times the width and depth of the root ball so the roots are nice and loose, and add a little slow-release fertilizer like Ozmacote to the hole. Make sure your new friend is getting enough water and a few words of encouragement, but remember that overwatering is just as problematic as underwatering, so make sure before you water it again that it really needs it.
Purchasing sad plants is a smart way to build your garden and allows you to try plants you may not have chosen at full price. Remember that a small sacrifice now, in terms of plant appearance, can mean big returns later.